I first met Ross Gresham, his brother Kyle, and sister Nicole, some 42 years ago. Their parents were professors at the college I attended on a football scholarship (Minot State College, now a University). Their father is the guy I mention in every book dedication. He’s definitely the person most responsible for me ever getting published, and probably the person most responsible for me not being in jail and/or dead.
Now, some 42 years later, I get to interview Ross (or, as I call him, Rossman). Like his parents and both siblings, Ross has some serious education chops. He’s also a terrific author with a new book out (reviewed here), White Shark (click on the link for our review).
Ross is the author of the mystery novel White Shark (Gale / Five Star, May 2016). It's the first book in his Jim Hawkins series. His short stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Theaker's, and Front Range Review. Gresham's first book, Andre Dubus Talking (Xavier Review Press, 2003), collected together for the first time all available interviews with Dubus. Gresham is Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy and fiction editor for the journal War, Literature & the Arts. He lives in Colorado Springs with his family.
1. Where did the idea for Jim Hawkins come from?
Response: Years back a guy told me the basic story of Lawrence Rockwood. Rockwood was a US soldier stationed in Haiti who was appalled by the inhuman prison conditions. He kept complaining through official channels but that worked about as well as you’d expect. Finally he put on his kit and marched in…. Recently the NYT ran a nice piece about one of our soldiers who was sickened by the fact that our Afghan ally kept a little boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. The US soldier kicked the guy’s ass for him (and of course was fired for doing so). I’ve heard a dozen similar stories. Just because it’s the rule doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Perfect kind of character for a crime book.
2. Tell us about old money vs. new. Why did you choose that as one of a few backdrops to what Hawkins unwittingly comes up against?
Response: That’s a great question. I have no idea. In real life I haven’t met that many people with old money, but I’ve liked every single one of them. I wish I had some old money myself.
3. This was one of my favorite passages in the novel, especially the last line, which I believe is a humbling fact for most (if not all) of us. “Now, you may think, Rich Lady! She orders you around like a servant! That wasn’t the situation. Yes, Sarah had her ideas about how things should be. This is the trap of money and Sarah wasn’t immune. No one is. A lady with extensive property makes a decision every ten minutes—which car? Which restaurant? Which house?—and the habit becomes a trait. Authority rewires the brain. You forget what people are for. That happens to everyone.” Has this been your experience? Do people with major coin have rewired brains because of it?
Response: Yeah, authority rewires the brain. Regrettably. A line in a favorite book haunts my life: “Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men?” I’m a college teacher, prating at college students ten months a year. I go home every night and prate to my poor kids. I’m fated to become an unbearable jackass (what’s that the wife is saying? I’m already…?) Every May, at the end of the school year, I fantasize about moving to a monastery with a vow of silence. I am so fucking tired of my own voice: blah blah blah. What a dick.
4. Picking up on some of the passages I loved, here’s another statement from on high (money): She spun me a theory about great men. It was different for great men. All we could hope for was to be of some assistance. I immediately thought of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. Is that what you were aiming at?
Response: Again, great question. I didn’t have Raskolnikov in mind—I don’t know the Russians as well as I should—but I’ll take the Dostoevsky comparison all day long.
5. As much as I hate to admit it, especially since he took a major misrepresentative cheap shot at Bernie Sanders in the Miami paper he writes for, I was immediately comparing White Shark to the Carl Hiaasen environmental novels. Humorous, cynical, clever and cool … very cool. I think I preferred White Shark because of the depth of your cool vs. Hiaasen’s cool. I especially enjoyed how your protagonist was so much more innocent than I remember Hiaasen’s star. Hawkins crept up on me, his military background/prowess, etc., and I thought that was very effective. Even in affairs of the heart, Hawkins was a very reasonable dude. Hiaasen supports a fracking queen, which negates his environmental angst for me. Hawkins doesn’t seem all that concerned with the environment per se, and is more concerned with how people treat one another. Was that a conscious decision you made for him? I like it, because there’s more reality to it (than we’d all like to admit about ourselves). We don’t root for environmental disasters, but we don’t do much to avoid them. Hawkins is focused on people. Is that because of his background experiences in Africa, or is it because there’s only so much room and time for a particular cause/crusade?
Response: Jeez I like your reading of Hawkins. He wouldn’t pay attention to any “-ism,” even a virtuous one like environmentalism. None of them register.
6. White Shark is a page turner, and a fun one at that. It’s also extremely smart writing. The dirty retired government official was all too credible, especially with the shit we see day-to-day from our illustrious government and the clowns holding office. Land development vs. environmental concerns loom in the background of White Shark. Was this all a master plan or did it come about as you progressed in the story. I guess this is a process question. Was it outlined with those ideas in your head or did it come as you wrote?
Response: The choice of bad guys probably reveals my own biases (except they’re not biases but sound political wisdom). I didn’t plan the book very well and had to revise a lot. I went to years of writing school but we wrote short stories and didn’t talk about plotting. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, no master plan, though I did know the essential crime from the start.
7. Where does Hawkins go after his stint on Nausset Island? Is there another Hawkins novel in the works? I hope so.
Response: One more in the oven. How on earth did Jim Hawkins end up as a substitute Sheriff in rural Wyoming? At least nothing can go wrong in a boring place like that….
8. You grew up in a very literary family, not to mention the ultimate Renaissance man environment. When did you start writing? What age, subject matter, etc.?
Response: I do come from a reading family. Growing up, everyone had a book going—your book—as in, “it’s going to be a long drive, grab your book.” Another nice thing about my family background was that being a writer was about the best thing you could be. Really. Most families would love their kids to be an astronaut or play quarterback for the Cowboys. Or get rich—maybe that’s the most common thing we want for our kids, so that we never have to worry. But my house was wall-to-wall books. I loved everything about them—the musty smell, the covers—these worlds were out of reach.
9. You have an MA and from Southern Mississippi and a PhD from the University of Denver. What are your thoughts on graduate writing schools?
Response: I know that people complain about writing schools, but those years certainly helped me. Going in, my work was terrible. Coming out, my work was somewhat less terrible. I also had a good time. I liked all the people and teachers. I’ll try a New York accent: C’mon, what d’ya want? (forgive me.)
10. Should they entertain genre fiction or continue to exist with a pickle up their asses?
Response: Ha! You know what’s a common phenomenon? You get on an airplane coming home from a big professor conference—MLA or something—and all these scholars are reading Stephen King or Fifty Shades of Grey. Anybody who reads books reads some kind of genre fiction. It’s true that some professors stop reading altogether. On the airplane they’re re-watching The Matrix on DVD.
11. Two Harvard graduates (you and your sister, Nicole), and an Air Force Academy graduate (your brother, Kyle). That’s some seriously impressive parenting. I think I remember your Dad saying he used to pay you guys to read based on the size of the book. X amount for so many pages, etc. Which book was your biggest payday? Did you enjoy it or was it something to bring to the labor board?
Response: I know I didn’t get any money for Elmore Leonard. I got twenty bucks apiece for the Will Durant history series. The whole policy made a lot of sense. My friends were flipping burgers for three bucks an hour. If you were a parent, and you could afford to, who wouldn’t make that deal?
12. Your kids … are you following the free market coin for books approach with them or have you altered the program? If so, how have you altered it?
Response: My kids? They don’t know what books are. They just steal the money out of my wallet when I’m asleep.
13. Your favorite novel and why?
Response: How about Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim? I’ve read it thirty or forty times and each time I’ve laughed aloud.
14. How in the world did you and your brother, two kids growing up in North Dakota (where the closest NFL team was the Minnesota Vikings) wind up Dallas Cowgirl fans? Was it strictly jumping on a winning team bandwagon or was it a romanticized version of rooting for a team full of felons (i.e., the underdogs make good)? And please tell me that you and Kyle haven’t brainwashed Nicole into being a Dallas fan as well.
Response: To some people, I know, it is odd to be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. I understand that. But remember my childhood was different. I was born here in America.
We thank the Rossman for giving us his time and answers. Go get White Shark here, amici. You won’t be disappointed.
Kill Anything That Moves, by Nick Turse … An important book, especially to those partway through high school, but also to pretty much everyone else, because it rips away the bloated super-hyped glory of going to war, being in war, and surviving war. It remains a very tough book for me to read. That’s right, I haven’t finished it yet.
So, how do you review it, Knucks?
Calm your jets and I’ll tell you … a little at a time, because the non-stop documentation of the hundreds, maybe thousands of My Lai Massacres that took place over the course of the “conflict in Vietnam” are very tough (at least for me) to comprehend. I don’t intend or want to browbeat the soldiers involved in these massacres, because although there were war crimes pretty much constantly committed, the war crimes themselves were U.S. Military policy. The soldiers, often caught in terrified situations, especially after one of their own was wounded or killed, reacted the way none of us might imagine, yet can understand (if we take the time to visualize the mess). So, yeah, the Lt. William Calley fucked up, but so did all those behind the scenes, from higher-ups in country to the assholes running things in Washington D.C.
I’ll eventually finish reading the book, but I really had to take a break because the documentation of devastation and murder and rape and pillage was just too much to handle straight through. Like I said, it’s an important book … and especially for those young men who think it’s all for glory and honor they’re shipped overseas to kill people who never did a thing against them.
The Trump Implosion … I suspect nobody is more disappointed than me in the Orange Blowhard’s (a.k.a. The Donald’s) self-implosion. Not because I supported this lunatic, but because I believed, and still do, that he’s just a big blowhard with nothing to offer or accomplish if ever elected President. I also thought it would be great for America to be exposed -- how absurd our political system/culture has become—the fact a complete buffoon can win a major party nomination is bad enough, but top it off with the Presidency? Man, that’s just entertainment. Frankly, as a country that can’t manage to achieve (or maybe doesn’t want to) more than 50% of the public to even show up to vote, we deserve the fiasco we’ve sowed.
Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump … a congenital liar, war hawk, bribe-taking, criminal versus an absolute clown. There’s “American Exceptionalism” for you.
As a Bernie supporter, I’ve already turned to the Green Party … I can only hope Sanders doesn’t cave and wind up endorsing the very kind of corruption his campaign fought against. Should he do so, he loses my support and winds up being just another pol in my book. I could care less about best intentions. You don’t endorse what you claim you were fighting (pay attention Mika Brzezinski—your constant complaining about GOP officials supporting the Orange Blowhard are getting old—try asking Elizabeth Warren why she dodged a simple “yes”/”no” question regarding whether or not Hillary Clinton should release her Wall Street transcripts?).
Speaking of Warren, Bernie should pay attention to how unfavorably she’s been received by progressives since her sellout. She’s hated now, and deservedly so.
If Bernie really wants to generate a political revolution, he’d hustle his ass over to the Jill Stein and the Green Party, which has been begging for his presence for years now.
One from Column A and one from Column B …